A Fireside Chat with Dr. Joseph Coughlin of the MIT AgeLab – “The Infrastructure of Wellness”
CBS reporter Harry Butcher coined the phrase “fireside chat” to capture the informal and conversational tone of President Roosevelt’s speeches during the Great Depression. History reminds us that the President wanted to speak plainly to as many Americans as possible. At that time in the 1930’s, nearly 90% of the country owned a radio and this medium offered an unprecedented forum for reaching the masses. During the opening remarks of Aging2.0 Boston’s Fireside Chat, Massachusetts Secretary of Elder Affairs Alice Bonner honored the tradition of speaking simply by soliciting a commitment from the audience. She recognized that while we were all gathered at District Hall to celebrate the promise and opportunity for a shifting vision of old age, retirement and enabling technology, there was a more pressing priority for us to seize together. IF we recognize that aging is about families and community more than it is about “old people” alone THEN, we are quickly reminded that kindness and relationship-building represent the greatest investment of “human” capital into our shared future. More literally, we were asked to make eye contact and say hello to the people we encounter in our daily lives – especially seniors seemingly alone.
With that segue in mind, the event’s Moderator, Boston Globe reporter Robert Weisman, guided an inquiry into the many insights offered by Dr Joseph Coughlin and his AgeLab team in his newly published book, “The Longevity Economy.” At the surface level, it is a book that encourages business leaders to think differently about how to position for a demographic certainty that almost “defies description.” At a deeper, more functional level, Dr. Coughlin and his team have leveraged their own brand identity and intellect to help change the conversation about aging and old age. As contextual history emerged through the fireside conversation it became clear that AgeLab has a broad and active charge – to help create an “infrastructure of wellness.” MIT is uniquely positioned to support delivery of a wellness framework to communities given that they stand at the crossroads of so many industry constituents. None among them can offer wellness alone – this outcome will only be achieved through active collaboration and convergence fostered by all champions of change.
At one point in the evening’s Q&A session, an individual asked about the promise of the Autonomous Vehicle (AV) industry. The AgeLab doesn’t just have a front row seat for observing this trend – they are actively working with Toyota (among others) to advance an understanding of how drivers respond to the increasing complexity of our modern “operating” environment. But wait – here is the rub – in response, Dr. Coughlin emphasized that in spite of all the deep learning and research underway, no one is focused (to his knowledge) on “the 20 foot” challenge. In other words, while billions of dollars have been invested in this trending technology, the functional issue of getting a person with limited mobility into or out of a vehicle has not yet been fully addressed! This single insight serves as a metaphor to the shortcomings of mainstream marketing and product development strategies. When you go the extra mile and think about the problems that you are aiming to solve from multiple perspectives, you will naturally uncover a deficit that leads to greater opportunity. To echo Secretary Bonner’s insight – let’s be sure we are investing resources into the “right” opportunities.
The “PieterExplainsTech” YouTube channel offers a variety of tech inspired explainer videos. In Hub, Switch or Router, the viewer is introduced to three network devices (as titled) and the way in which they connect to each other. When we think of the phrase “Hub” from a layman’s perspective, it conjures the spirit of scale and connection. Imagine the wooden wheel from tinker toy sets that empowered us to make a thousand iterations of ultimately the same thing. It is not surprising that coworking studios, or other Victor Hwangenthusiasts, would gravitate to this “hub” language when seeding their own role in a burgeoning innovation ecosystem. True to form, real insights require deep thinking – a natural extension of the consumer-centric, systemic design thinking that the AgeLab represents. From a literal perspective, Hubs in a network do not distinguish or direct signals intelligently – they only replicate and push data through the network while increasing the bandwidth of our systems in the process. Switches and Routers on the other hand, make it possible to direct information more purposefully.
Switching and Routing
We are living in a time where every industry sector touts (often with their own unique sound bites) the merits of integrative or interdisciplinary thinking and yet even a cursory inventory of these vertical spaces reveal gross intellectual redundancies. We borrow thought leaders and pass them through our conference circuits but we do not always stop to consider the efficacy of our economy, business models or community landscape. The “city” historically has been a mechanism for creating and distributing goods and services and it accomplishes this monumental feat by consuming our human scale. Absent progressively planned community infrastructure (let alone serious inner-engineering), we cannot even begin to think about achieving and distributing the dimensions of wellness at scale.
We could not dismiss the subtle irony of sitting in District Hall – an incredible public innovation space that is literally dwarfed by the Boston Seaport cityscape – while sharing sentiments about an altered future state. Our western culture is so highly fragmented because our economic landscape requires it to be so. The appealing catchphrase “infrastructure of wellness” implies that there is (or should be) a dynamic delivery system supporting the attainment of well-being. Dr Coughlin and others focused on “longevity” always ask (appropriately) if we want to just live long or live well. It seems as though we will always fall short of this latter goal if we continue to commoditize and externalize our health and the attainment of wellness while still developing communities for cars and commerce rather than for people and relationships.
A Silver-Lining for “Senior” Living
There are literally hundreds of thousands of industry constituents focusing on the same problems. If we learn to share our language and outcomes, we will begin to close the gaps in our learning very quickly. Organizations like the MIT AgeLab offer the promise of integrative thinking fueled by collaboration – enhanced by the authority and influence they represent. If we don’t know who we are meeting on the sidewalk – there is something wrong with the city or town we are living in. This is our 20 foot problem! Living alone together breeds lost opportunities for truly redefining and redirecting the future of aging where we can live long AND well!.
It is not likely that conventional cities or towns can be repurposed overnight. Nonetheless, The Senior Living Industry is uniquely positioned to influence this change landscape – dismantling the senior silos of traditional real estate development and introducing planned communities that are more purposefully connected to the broader community. Thought leaders like Dr. Joseph Coughlin and his team remind us that the future has not yet been built. The infrastructure of wellness represents a future scenario that might organize itself with greater clarity of purpose with a shared vision.